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UAE extends its hand to troubled, very old friend

Could the Acropolis be moving to Saadiyat Island?

Could the Acropolis be moving to Saadiyat Island? Not exactly. But all manner of projects are on the table in talks between UAE and Greek officials, who met in Athens just days before rioting began in the capital last month. In Athens on April 27, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, lent his support to the embattled nation, meeting high-level officials and assuring them of the UAE's continued co-operation and investment.

The meeting was a ray of light amid a torrent of criticism for the tiny country, which has almost brought Europe to its knees in recent months. Where Germans froth at the mouth when the word "Greece" is uttered and markets quake at the slightest hint of a default, the UAE's pledge to bolster ties was a welcome diversion. What was involved was just a re-enforcement of agreements signed throughout a three-decade partnership and a promise to take them further.

That in itself may be enough to restore some investor confidence, as mutual co-operation between a waning Europe and a booming GCC will be all the more necessary as markets home in on the next potential target of the EU's sluggish economy. The EU bailout of almost US$1 trillion (Dh3.67tn) announced this week may temporarily boost investor confidence but it is pacts with countries such as the UAE that will restore long-term credibility to ailing nations such as Greece.

Among the subjects discussed at the Athens meeting were increased co-operation over culture, tourism, energy and shipping. The yacht builder Abu Dhabi MAR's recent acquisition of a controlling stake in Hellenic Shipyards from Germany's Thyssenkrupp is one of the most tangible deals to emerge from the partnership. No doubt future co-operations will come on board as maritime industries in both countries struggle to recoup losses from the financial crisis, when ports around the world suffered severe setbacks in trade volume and ship orders.

Green energy is also another avenue of exploration. Sunlight, a copious resource in both countries, has received greater attention, with a new law in Greece and a goal by Abu Dhabi to reach 7 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Last year, the Greek-based Lion Energy announced plans to develop solar power in Greece and the UAE, while reports also circulated last year that a Greek company was interested in developing one of the world's largest solar energy fields in Dubai.

So, while projects such as Masdar continue to capture the imagination of green energy buffs, more practical solutions seem imminent as both countries seek to conserve their natural resources and diversify their energy industries. Tourism, a sector in the sights of both countries, will also receive a boost as Greece races to secure numbers for the summer. Likewise, the Emirates has become a favourite holiday destination for Greeks, second only to London. Pavlos Geroulanos, the Greek minister of tourism and culture, was in Abu Dhabi last week to discuss possible projects, among which were exhibitions on maritime heritage and philosophy and a joint museum venture between Athens and the Louvre on Saadiyat Island.

There is, after all, a long history between the two countries that goes beyond recent economic woes. Greece was one of the first countries to officially recognise the Emirates in the early 1970s, establishing trade ties well before there was much development in the UAE. And the links extend further: Nearchus, a naval officer for Alexander the Great, sailed through the Gulf some 2,000 years ago, visiting Bahrain along the way, where he noted the presence of "fish-eaters", as he dubbed native Bahrainis.

The countries are also tied by their mutual stance on a number of strategic issues, including Iran and EU-Middle East co-operation, as well as Israel and the Palestinian Territories. With vocal Palestinian populations in both countries, advocacy of a two-state solution has always been on both countries' agendas. These historical ties have caused the Emirates to publicly stand by its long-time ally. Subject to the scrutiny of the markets and investor pressure last year, the UAE experienced a dip in confidence similar to the one Greece is now suffering.

Emphasising their historic ties, Sheikh Abdullah remarked in Athens: "This economic crisis is not local. It is a global financial crisis and this is why efforts have to be made on an international level in order to overcome it." As countries around the world look for long-term solutions to fix their economies, the Greece-UAE model is a smart endeavour - two small countries, two very different economies but a wealth of potential between them.

As more European nations fall prey to stalled growth, the pact between Greece and UAE just might offer a way out of the apparently inevitable. mmetallidis@thenational.ae

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